Maintaining the Veil of Silence

Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Anglican priest working in Cairo, has apparently become the lead correspondent in Egypt for the Christian Century, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the U.S. In two articles about events in post-Mubarak Egypt, Chandler has worked to portray relations between Coptic Christians and their Muslim neighbors in Egypt in sympathetic and hopeful terms.

While this is in keeping with his need to maintain good relations with the inhabitants of a Muslim-majority society where anti-Christian hostility is a force to be reckoned with, it contradicts his obligation as a Christian Century correspondent to offer his readers a comprehensive view of events as they take place. In short, Chandler’s impulse to put a positive spin on events so as not to offend Muslims in Egypt undermines his ability to show readers exactly what is going on in Egypt.

Chandler’s first article, “Muslims and Copts together: Egypt’s interfaith revolution,” appeared on the magazine’s website on March 4, 2011. The article describes how Muslims and Copts came together in the aftermath of the New Year’s Day bombing of a church in Alexandria.

Chandler accurately reports that Muslims formed human chains around Coptic Churches during Christmas Eve masses throughout the country and that millions of Egyptians “replaced their Facebook profile photos with the image of a cross within a crescent” and put bumper sticks on their cars with a similar image.

Chandler then describes how Muslims and Copts both held religious services at Tahrir Square “to honor those killed” in the January 25 Uprising and how Muslim and Christian neighbors protected one another’s lives and property as chaos descended on the streets of Cairo.

Chandler reports that his own apartment building “was assaulted nine times by mobs of armed looters, and each time we were protected by Muslim neighbors.” Chandler writes:

During the uncertain days of the protest, not a single church or synagogue (which are normally protected by machine-gun bearing police) in the country was targeted. Christians were in no way threatened. In contrast, remarkable accounts emerged of Muslims protecting the churches from the possibility of looting. A Muslim friend of mine takes great pride in saying he helped guard the historic fifth-century Hanging Church in Old Cairo, a site sacred to Coptic Christians.”
Chandler’s assertion that “Christians were in no way threatened” during the uncertain days of protest”
is false. In early February, weeks before Chandler’s article was published in the Christian Century, The Assyrian International News Agency, reported that two families of Coptic Christians were murdered in Upper Egypt five days after the uprising began. According to AINA, Coptic activist Dr. Hanna Hanna said the Islamists responsible for the murders chose Coptic Christians – and not Muslims – as their victims “because they know that with Copts they can literally get away with murder.”

Here are some details of the attack:

“The two families were staying in their homes with their doors locked when suddenly the Islamists descended on them,” said Bishop Agathon, “killing eleven and leaving for dead four other family members. In addition, they looted everything that was in the two Coptic houses, including money, furniture and electrical equipment. They also looted livestock and grain.”
Rev. Chandler, a prominent cleric and author with a following in the United States, enjoyed the protection from his neighbors in Cairo during the January 25 Uprising before returning to the U.S. for a brief respite at the insistence of the Episcopal Church. The Copts who suffered the attack described above had no such protection, nor could they leave the country to avoid the violence they endured. Neither Chandler nor his readers should mistake the safety he enjoyed during the uprising as being operative for Coptic Christians living in Egypt.

Muslim Brotherhood

Chandler’s depiction of Yusuf Qaradawi in the March 4, 2011 article is an egregious whitewash. Chandler writes that during a Friday sermon, Qaradawi, a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood, “struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing” and that the “pluralistic emphasis in his sermon highlighted the new interfaith worldview of the young audience standing before him.” [Please see note at the bottom of this article.]

The notion that Yusuf Qaradawi is committed to democracy and pluralism is insupportable. As previous CAMERA analysis reveals, the man is a vicious anti-Semite who hopes that Muslim believers will achieve the destruction of the Jewish people. In addition to supporting the Iranian fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, he has also called for the murder of people who leave Islam and subsequently criticize the religion. And if that is not enough to demonstrate his anti-democratic credentials, he encouraged, with some qualifications, the practice of female genital mutilation and wife beating.

Again, it’s necessary to consider the role Chandler’s status as a privileged Westerner plays in his sanguine coverage of Qaradawi’s ideology. If Chandler were the target of an Islamic fatwa, a Muslim apostate, a Muslim woman, or a Jew, he might have a different view of Qaradawi’s putative support for democracy and pluralism.

Mugged by Reality

As it turned out, the sanguine and optimistic narrative offered in Chandler’s March 4 article was overtaken by events. Soon after it was posted on Christian Century‘s website on March 4, news reports indicated that a church in the village of Sool located in the province of Helwan, was set on fire and Christians living nearby hid in the homes of their Muslim neighbors homes to seek protection from rioters. After the church was destroyed, Muslims prayed on the site of the destroyed church in an apparent effort to prevent the church from being rebuilt.

After the attack, the military officials initially promised to rebuild the church on its original site, but once it became apparent that Muslim extremists were intent on building a mosque on the site of the burnt church, officials then attempted to convince the local Coptic community to agree to build the church elsewhere, presumably out of a fear of challenging the protesters head-on.

The military’s apparent unwillingness to rebuild on the original site and failure to protect the church in the first place prompted Copts to protest in the streets of Cairo days after the attack. Several were kill ed, as were some Muslims. Details of the events can be found here, here and here.

After these events took place, Chandler was forced to acknowledge in a second article, “Clashes and coalitions” published on March 16, 2011, that they contradicted the vision of interfaith unity seen during the January 25 Uprising in Tahrir square. “What is going on?” he asked. “How could Egyptian Christians be attacked and a church burnt after Muslims and Christians stood, fought and died together in Tahrir Square, when images of solidarity between both faiths stirred the whole world?”

Copts Preparing to Burn a Mosque? Really?

Chandler’s story includes a rumor “that the Copts had already burned down a small mosque and were coming to burn down the iconic Sayyida Aisha mosque.”

Chandler does not tell the reader whether there was any substance to these rumors. This is crucial because during times of sectarian strife and ethnic cleansing, false accusations are themselves weapons. Prior to the January 25 Uprising, Muslim extremists accused Coptic Christians of storing weapons in their churches, being in league with Israel, and of kidnapping Muslim women and keeping them hostage. This last rumor was used, by the way, to incite hostility toward Christians in Iraq prior to the Halloween 2010 attack on a church in Baghdad that killed almost 70 people.

Chandler’s story also includes testimony from a Coptic priest that the clash that took place after the church bombing was “not a clash between Muslims and Christians. ‘The attack was organized and [involved] guns,” he said. “Muslim residents [here] don’t have weapons.”
Given the status of Coptic Christians in Egypt, is this testimony reliable? What would happen to the Coptic priest were to say unequivocally that in fact, there was a component of religious hostility behind the violence?

This is an important question. Recently, a Coptic Christian had his ear cut off by a group of Muslim men in Egypt. (For details of the attack, click here.) AINA reports that initially, the victim of the attack wanted compensation and revenge but then changed his mind:

At first Mr. Mitri said he wanted full compensation for his losses and even wanted revenge by cutting off the ear of the Muslim who cut his ear off. However, it was reported that a “reconciliation” meeting was made in the presence of Colonel Ahmed Masood, Vice military ruler of Qena, whereby Ayman Mitri and the Muslims came to an “agreement.” Mr. Mitri had to withdraw the police report he filed against the Muslims.
Mr. Mitri appeared on the Coptic TV channel CTV, where he was asked about the reason he agreed to reconcile and forfeit his rights. Mitri said while sobbing “I was threatened, they threatened to kidnap the female children in our family.”

Under these circumstances is it reasonable to think that just maybe the priest that Chandler quoted was downplaying the religious component of the violence endured by his community to prevent further attacks? It doesn’t take a huge amount of moral imagination to ask this question, but for some reason, Chandler seems unable to muster it.

Merely A Government Plot?

Chandler also reports that there are indications that the attacks against Coptic Christians were orchestrated by “pro-Mubarak supporters intent perpetrating a counter revolution.” There is ample evidence that the Mubarak regime did incite violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt and bears some measure of responsibility for the ongoing hostility toward Christians in Egypt.

Interfaith relations deteriorated under the Mubarak regime reports Nelly van Doorn-Harder, reports Professor of Islamic Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who writes “The regime allowed generations of young Muslims to study biased text books in schools and hear radicalized rhetoric about Coptic “others.” Mubarak allowed inter-religious tensions to escalate; by the year 2000, random acts of violence against the Copts had become normative.”

Clearly, anti-Coptic hostility is part of Egyptian culture, and if it weren’t, the use of anti-Coptic hostility as a tool to maintain power would not work as a strategy. But the responsibility cannot be placed solely on the Mubarak regime. Muslim religious leaders in Egypt also bear large measure of responsibility for anti-Coptic attitudes in that country, a point van Doorn-Harder makes in the piece mentioned previously.

This hostility has real consequences that Chandler fails to address in his piece in a responsible way. These consequences are detailed in a November 2009 report published by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights. The report titled “The Disappearance, Forced Conversions, and Forced Marriages of Coptic Christian Women in Egypt,” documents the depredations endured by Copts in Egypt at the hands of Muslim extremists in that country. It also documents the failure of government officials to prosecute these crimes and the failure of the international community to respond forcefully to the mistreatment of the Coptic community in Egypt.

One crucial passage of the report states the following:The Islamic world does not readily acknowledge its own discrimination and violence against non-Muslims. Such abuse remains covered in a cloak of silence and tacit acceptance, even though it is against the constitutional affirmations of civil rights. When non-Muslims call public attention to such violations of human rights, they are often branded as Islamophobes.

With his distorted coverage of events in Egypt, Paul-Gordon Chandler is helping to maintain the cloak of silence over the mistreatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

NOTE: CAMERA previously drew attention to unusual similarities between Chandler’s article and one published by the New York Times in mid-February and stated that it appeared the Christian Century was following the New York Times’ coverage of Qaradawi on a word-for-word basis. Christian Century responded by stating that it appears the New York Times coverage was based on an email Chandler sent to “friends and churches” to prior the publication of his March 4, 2011 article.

CAMERA subsequently contacted the New York Times and inquired about the similarities and Christian Century‘s statement.

The paper is investigating the issue.

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